The Island That Never Sleeps
When I hear the hotel concierge mention something about a lobster that likes night swimming, I stop her immediately. 'Perdón, perdón, más despacio, por favor."
She smiles then gives me directions to a seafood restaurant she recommends — this time in English — and I scold myself for even trying to ask a question in Spanish. I've just landed in Puerto Rico and have ridden by taxi through jungles and along rugged coastline to the west end — more specifically to the Copamarina Resort in Guanica.
Almost all Puerto Ricans speak English — it is a territory of the United States — so I'm not sure why I feel the need to practice a language I haven't spoken since college. I guess it's because most Puerto Ricans speak Spanish to each other — heatedly and almost impossibly fast — about what I assume must be all the local secrets and news worth knowing.
Later that night as I dig into ceviche with a spicy tomato sauce base, I start to wonder if there's something behind all the fast talking. Is there so much happening at once in Puerto Rico that if you don't fire off your words quickly you might miss out on something great?
Expedition to Mona
It's the next morning and I've been perched in silence on the fly deck of Adventure Tour-marine's boat for three hours, waiting for a shape to appear on the rippled horizon.
'There, do you see it?" asks Alberto Martí, our guide from PADI Five-Star IDC Scuba Dogs dive shop in Guayanabo.
'I think so," I say, squinting to decipher if the white smudge is a series of breaking waves or a landmass.
Ten minutes later, I can clearly make out the white cliffs. As we motor closer, shades of green fill in the background until Mona Island emerges from legend and becomes real.
I'd first heard of Mona years ago when I lived on St. Croix working as a dive instructor. When talk turned to diving — as it often does in dive towns — visitors who'd been there would get a far-off look in their eyes. 'Ah, Mona," they'd say, as if recalling a former lover. Then they'd tell me more about this 'Galápagos of the Caribbean." Separated from Puerto Rico by a 67-mile swim, Mona's fauna flourished independent of outside influence. Now, the limestone cliffs fence in monkeys, giant iguanas and birds found nowhere else.
We jump in for a drift dive at Carbinero — a wall steep enough to hold its own against its more famous cousins in the Caribbean, like Bloody Bay Wall. A slight current leans on us, allowing us to forgo that nuisance called kicking and concentrate both on the smaller creatures inhabiting the wall and on the depths from which pelagics might appear.
We see two hawksbill turtles in the 150 feet of visibility, and only after we hit the one-hour mark does the current take a decidedly different turn as we enter slightly stirred-up water. We're certainly not complaining as we start our ascent.
As we rest aboard the boat during our surface interval, Alberto tells us another reason people visit Mona: to hunt pigs and goats. At first I balk, exclaiming that the wildlife should be left alone, but Alberto explains that the goats destroy the iguanas' nests and the pigs love to eat sea turtle eggs.
I think about this for a minute. 'Hunting season starts in December, you say?"
Before I get too engrossed imagining a Charlton Heston-style vacation, we pull anchor and head to Captain's Point for another drift dive. Overhead, the sky is full of birds and bats that spill out of the caves in the limestone cliffs each time a large wave breaks at full speed against the landmass.
Once we arrive at Captain's Point, I jump in and free-fall to 90 feet. Again, visibility stretches beyond 150 feet, allowing us all to monitor each other and see who is spotting the best critters. When several divers hover together tightly, I swim over to see what they have discovered — a yellow stingray. I investigate farther under ledges and find lobsters and crabs large enough to suggest that few — if any — human hunters or fishermen swim these waters.
Looking up, I catch only a glimpse of Alberto's fins as he disappears behind a fold in the limestone curtain. I follow as he swims to shallower but more unpredictable water — just yards beneath where the waves break. He lets the swell carry him into a cavern, and I'm right behind him.
My movements are carefully timed to avoid careening into the walls as I enter another sunlight-drenched cavern, awe-striking in its size. I tremble as the sound of the waves crashing into the island echoes through my body. I chase Alberto from cavern to cavern, each time exiting when the surge catapults us into open water.
That night on the phone with a friend, I try to describe the day's dives and how incredible Mona Island is. The words come tumbling out of my mouth as I try to explain — that this island in the middle of nowhere is teeming with life. I barely pause for air.
Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication